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Acting in the Times: Shadowlands and Dying City

11 Nov

It is a historic moment in America. It is a moment that is made historic by the confluence of past and present contexts- the immediacy of war and economic crisis, a history of division and an act of coming together. Times like these, days like November 4th, 2008, are days that will marked in grand narratives of nations and culture, they are days too that will be remembered by individuals- we will tell where we were, what we are doing, like we have done since. PostSecret, the ongoing project where people anonymously mail in their deepest secrets to share had an aptly succinct illustration of this confluence of personal and social narrative this week: a letter was sent that read, “November 4th, 2008 will be the BEST DAY OF MY LIFE. Barack Obama is our 44th President and I finally caught my cheating/abusive boyfriend red-handed.”

Narrative brings me to theatre, which is also where history will have me- seeing two plays this historic week. On the 4th, the night of nights, I went to escape the built up tension (after performing my civic duties of voting, encouraging others to vote and engaging in Starbucks’ illegal coffee-for-votes scheme) at the Guthrie in order to preview Shadowlands. Shadowlands is the story of C.S. Lewis (played by Simon Jones) and the opening of his life as he falls in love with Joy Gresham (Charity Jones), an opinionated American divorcee. It is a love story, set against the backdrop of Lewis’ comfortable mid-50s Oxford existence; erudite, clad in tweed, sherries and old boy’s discussions, a wholly safe and neutered space.

The play opens with Lewis at a lectern delivering a speech about the love of god for humanity, a subject that Lewis addressed in many of his writings, from the interventions of Aslan in the Narnia stories to the correspondences of the devil Screwtape. The context of faith and pain is brought forth from the beginning,and as Joy struggles through illness and the love develops and deepens, the refrain that “the happiness then is worth the pain now”- and it’s inversion- resonates deeply. The story is one of disruption of a settled life, of pain and reconciliation- a strong universally accessible theme which is reached through the easy and assured presentation. The story is fixed in a time period but is so comfortable in it that we can dissolve that context in favor of the over-arching narrative, and find currently applicable identification.

Across the river, The Bottling Company, a talented young group of University of Minnesota/ Guthrie Program BFAs (boot camp for Guthrie-aspiring actors, for better or for worse) were closing up their run of Dying City. Penned by Obie-award winning playwright Christopher Shinn and first produced in London in 2006, Dying City is also a play that is also fixed in a specific time and place, but unlike Shadowlands, never manages to transcend that context. Set on two nights and moving fluidly between the two, we see the final night discussion of Craig (Ian Holcomb) and his wife Kelly (Kate Durand) before Craig ships off to Iraq, and the visit of Craig’s gay identical twin Peter (also Holcomb) a year later, during which time, Craig has died. The temporal shift lends itself to some nifty shifts by Ian Holcomb and the terse staging and direction say as much about the discourse around relationships in war as the text does itself.

Dying City purports to be a study of dissolution, betrayal and invasion, but as I type that, I feel like I should be writing a blurb for Days of Our Lives. The plot hinges upon events that have occurred in the not distant memory- upon events in which we are still embroiled- but it never brings itself about to create a narrative critique or build any analytic inferences from events in the context of the world to the story of the play. If we are to believe that play is occurring at a specific point in history, as Iraq, references to Jon Stewart, Tivo and “Law & Order” force us to, then there is precious little space to give themes space to breathe. Shinn does the text no favors by trying to pack in themes- sexual violence is mentioned, but not explored, infidelity, homophobic slurs, suicide, drug abuse, all these things swirl darkly in a play that says that it needs to expands the discourse but condescends to doing so. It is a theatrical trick that comes off as formally executed anger at 2004.

Returning home, I turned to MPR, and there was Dick Gordon wrapping up “The Story”. In response to a listener’s rhetorical query as to why the media was always surprised about the decency of everyday people, Gordon editorialized to the crux of the difference between these two examinations. He said, “in times like these, people’s true stories are what the country needs.” The heart of analysis and criticism is always coming back to the questions- Why This, and Why Now? To make a theme dependent upon context is to weaken it’s staying power, but to articulate the story independent of context can make it work in any time and place, and make the moment critical again.

Shadowlands runs November 1 – December 21, 2008 (Opening November 07) on the McGuire Proscenium Stage.

Dying City has closed, but check for future Bottling Company productions.

Random Arcana: Simon Jones as Arthur Dent in the BBC’s production of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I thought that C.S. Lewis seemed familiar!

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